Into the Jungle – Ambushed!

We had come to a halt, still in open water but only a few yards from the right bank.  We could observe the hippo activity completely now and we watched them yawn, those huge gaping jaws showing off the chunky tusks on each corner.  A low laugh would come from different individuals; it really did sound like a slow and deliberate guffaw and its echoes vibrated around the riverbank and into the forest.

We grew aware that the bull was not all together happy with our presence.   He would gently raise his head, maybe to get a better look at us, maybe to show how big he was, and it would be associated with a blast of air through his nose which would send a spray several metres across the water.

All together with some young as well, we counted eleven hippos.  The young had now gathered close to their mothers.  We asked the warden whether it was safe to remain here.  He seemed pretty relaxed so we continued to watch, although I did glance up at the bank to my right to see if there was an escape route if I needed it.  In theory hippos are safer in water than on land.  They feel calmer as they know they can submerge and move along the bottom, and as long as we did not directly confront them they would continue to wallow.  They felt nervous and vulnerable on land. And at least in water if they came for you you might get a glancing blow and the water would take you away, on land the weight of a couple of ton of sausage would give you some nasty injuries… or so I rationalised.

Their behaviour continued to worry everyone but the warden.  The bull had found a rock or sandbank in the river and was now raising himself out of the water past the shoulders while flapping his ears menacingly at us and continuing the snorts from his nostrils.  Without us being aware of it happening, the rest of the family were now stretched up and down the left bank in a line about 100m long.  A couple of the younger hippos were also mimicking the dominant bull; facing us and doing the same manoeuvres.

It was when the bull submerged and then re-emerged about 20m closer to us that the four tourists decided that enough was enough – nice to get so close but no need to aggravate them further.  The river was wide at this point but a couple of the hippos were now upstream of us and in theory could cut off any attempt to retrace our cruise.  There were still several hippos below us too and we were steadily being ambushed.  So we told, did not ask, the guide that we would go.  I put away my camera and quietly picked up the second oar and we turned the canoe round as gently as possible to face upstream and without making a ripple, pushed off… literally.  Hugo and Gray had come to the same conclusion and also made off with as little disturbance as possible.

Whether the ambush was us just being paranoid, whether they were blustering or were just moving around their patch, we shall never know, but our gentle exit from their pool seemed to diffuse any tensions and they never followed us further upstream.

Into the Jungle – Meeting the herd

As we progressed further away from the camp (and from the road from which most interlopers are likely to have travelled) the vegetation became wilder.  We journeyed through a still pool of water for nearly a kilometre.  Then I notice up ahead that our way was almost completely blocked by rocks jutting out of the water.  A few of these were full grown islands on which were small trees.  I noticed many birds took up perches here, no doubt hoping they were safe from jungle predators.  As we got closer, I realised that the rocks did not cover the whole riverbed, nor even cause any cascades, the water moved smoothly through several well defined channels.  Once or twice we could see submerged rocks that slightly scraped the base of our canoe, and I could imagine in the dry season navigating by canoe would be much more difficult.  And by seeing the exposed areas around us, I could also see that in the main wet season the river level could go much higher, and again the currents might stop easy navigation.

As we followed the twists and turns of the river through these rocks we became aware of a lot of bashing in the trees to our right.  Monkeys were bouncing from branch to branch; eventually we realised they were tracking us from the bank, rushing along for a few seconds then peering out at us to see what our reaction was.

We dropped down below the rocks in to another large still pool in the river; it bent gently round the left and opened up into a long strait.  The sky had all but cleared, just the odd small cumulus cloud peppering the horizon, and the water reflected it like a mirror.  With the exception of a few slight ripples, and the odd ring created by a gulping fish, the only break was way in the distance.  Through binoculars I could see two brownish lumps above the water edge – maybe more rocks, but then I noticed something flickering above these rocks; their ears.  The rocks were moving too and causing a little ring of disturbance around them.  We were fast approaching a herd of hippos.  As we got closer it was obvious these creatures had been observing us since we turned into the strait but they were calm about it; they just watched, occasionally flicked flies with their ears and apart from their eyes and forehead, nothing else of them could be seen.  The warden was quite happy to lead us close to them, on the shore furthest away from the herd.  As we drew parallel we were aware it was not just two animals, more heads appeared from below the water also not too concerned with us.  The first animal we had spotted still intently watched us, and was well positioned between us and the rest of the herd.  It was fairly obvious this was the dominant bull protecting his family.

Into the Jungle – An afternoon paddle

We’d arrived back at the camp earlier than expected because we had missed the final village stop.  The sun had broken out and the air was lighter than it had been all day, a slight breeze taking the worst of the humidity away. We had some options; relax in our accommodations, go for a walk, or, as one of the forest wardens was keen for us to do, take a trip in a canoe down the river.  I could do the other two any time; I was not going to miss a canoe trip for the world.

The scene in the camp was as tranquil as could be, only the ladies preparing our evening meal gave any hint at activity, and they worked slowly and methodically at their tasks.  After all, they still had three hours to go before dinner time.  I went and changed out of my formal field clothes (long trousers and a polo shirt) and put on some swimming shorts and a t shirt and we followed the tall gangly warden, carrying a paddle, down to the waterfront.  Adjoining the washing area we had used in the morning, two canoes were wedged onto the mud beside the river, a red fibreglass one and a wider metal one.  Myself and Anne, from USAID in Ghana, took the metal one with the warden paddling, and Hugo and my US Geological Survey colleague, Gray, took sole charge of the other one.  We gently eased out into the channel and for the first time I looked at the small cataract upriver from the camp.  I had heard the gushing in the night but now I saw the full extent.  Although the drop was only about 5m over a succession of boulders, the width of the river here was significant so the overall effect was impressive even thought the wet season had only just commenced.

I decided I would help the warden to paddle back, to help me get some exercise as much as anything, but I wanted free hands to take photographs as we headed down.  To start with it was just nice to get used to the motion of the canoe, gently going with the flow, and looking at the thick green forest either side.  It was interesting to note that this dense forest is never wide, even before humans starting hacking away at it, but probably only extended in a handful of trees before the amount of water in the ground was insufficient to supply huge trees.   The land beyond is a less dense scrubby woody savannah.

The afternoon was growing old and as we progressed we started to detect more activity.  The flies were always with us when we got close to the shore, but they were less prevalent out in the water, although you saw a few butterflies struggling to get across this open space without tiring or being caught.We saw some plops in the water as fish started jumping for the flies that were out on the river.  Birds were moving about in the shadows of the trees.

In theory the park was on our left and should have been pristine, but early on at several points we could see a dugout canoe moored in the mud, and here and there on the banks some vegetable crops or the odd manmade fence.  No doubt people were nibbling away at the park’s resources.  In some places the clearings were blatant as instead of the thickly vegetated fringes, the trees hanging low over the water’s edge, we could see the bank and exposed soil, and maybe here or there the odd large tree chopped down.